Chapter 13: Casablanca and the Ruhr
The room in which the Conference sat was in shape semi-circular, one of its walls being curved and composed ‘chiefly of large windows fronting the Atlantic’. Through them poured the sunshine which day after day burnished the rolling waters beyond the line of perpetual surf. The Chiefs of Staff had but to rise from the round table in the middle of the room and walk a yard to find themselves gazing at ‘villas and farms and the white mass of Casablanca town, the bougainvillaea, the begonias and the green of the orange groves and palm trees’, rising from the red soil beneath a sky of unchanging blue. It was in these surroundings that for ten January days in 1943 the political, naval, military and air chiefs of Britain and America deliberated. When they were ended, decisions which made victory certain had been taken. The Casablanca Conference did, indeed, mark a tide in the affairs of the Allies. They took it at the flood, and, though many weary weeks and months had still to pass, from that time onwards the ultimate result was never in doubt. The initiative had passed to them never to be regained by the enemy.
When Churchill, Roosevelt and the Chiefs of Staff met together in that sun-drenched town, the invasion of North Africa had been an accomplished fact for two months, and though nearly four more were to pass before von Arnim surrendered in Tunisia, it was already possible to plan the future conduct of the war. One decision was of cardinal importance and upon it depended the whole course of future operations. Was the prime enemy to be Germany or Japan? The British had no doubts. The ‘cleansing of the North African shore’, to use a phrase more than once on Churchill’s lips in those days, would prepare the ‘underbelly’ of the Axis to receive the knife of invasion. The Mediterranean would be freed, with all the consequences which would follow—a shortening of the sea routes to the Far East, where the enemy still raged in formidable strength, the release of large armies and air forces for new enterprises, and, very possibly, the disappearance altogether from the struggle of one of the three partners of the Axis.
The American view was not so clear-cut, even though General
Marshall stated at the outset of the talks the premise that seventy per cent of Allied resources should be assigned to the Atlantic theatre and thirty per, cent to the Pacific. A year had passed since the attack on Pearl Harbour and the leaders of the United States were still under its influence. Largely because of that violent and unprovoked assault from the air, followed so soon by the surrender of Singapore, the American fleet in the Pacific was homeless. Covered by its seaborne aircraft and supported by long-range bombers based on small, unheard-of islands, it was operating seven thousand miles from its bases and had not as yet been able to settle the issue. There were great and urgent tasks to be accomplished in the Pacific and in Burma; the condition of China was grave, some thought desperate; the Burma Road was still closed and such supplies as could reach the armies of Chiang Kai-Shek had to be carried by air across the Patkai range of the Naga hills. Since it was not possible to be equally strong on all fronts, might not too grave a risk be run in pressing the war in Europe at the expense of the Far East? Japan had begun the war with some six million tons of shipping, of which she had lost one million in the first twelve months. Reduce this tonnage to four million and she would be hard pressed to maintain her garrisons in the chain of islands running in a great half circle from Burma to New Guinea.
These were powerful considerations, not lightly to be disregarded, and there was another in the background more powerful than any, brooding, as it were, over the subconscious minds of these captains of war. How to use air power to the best advantage was a dominant factor in the deliberations of the Conference. Plans might be made and were, for vast movements of troops and supplies and for the regrouping of navies in each of the seven seas, but all were governed from first to last by the situation in the air. By January 1943 examples of the might of air power were not lacking. They ranged in importance from the capture of Crete, the virtual closing of the Mediterranean, the heavy losses inflicted on the American Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse off the East coast of Malaya, to the attacks by the Luftwaffe on the small but important port of Bone, which even at that late stage were causing difficulties for the Anglo-American-French army on the march to Tunis. All then, at that round table took it for granted that to ignore the power of the air would be an act of folly.
That being so, the Conference sought to reach agreement in three stages. First, the proportion of effort to be directed against Japan and against Germany had to be settled. Here the Americans, while evidently anxious that Germany should be defeated first, seemed uncertain as to the steps to take to achieve this end without weakening
unduly the forces arrayed against Japan. The discussion ranged far and wide, but can be summed up by an observation of one of the senior officers present.’ We are’, he said, ‘in the position of a testator who wishes to leave the bulk of his fortune to his mistress. He must, however, leave something to his wife, and his problem is to decide how little he can in decency set apart for her’. Eventually, it was agreed that ‘the major portion of the forces of the United Nations’ should be ‘directed against Germany’ but that most of the American fleet should remain in the Pacific where a number of operations should be undertaken of which the prime object was to prevent Japan from consolidating her gains.
The next problem was what point on the coast of Europe should be marked down for assault. The claims of the western coast of France as compared with those of Sicily and Italy were examined in detail and it was at one time thought that an invasion of the Pas de Calais or the Cherbourg area might achieve first a bridgehead, then a breach in Germany’s West Wall, through which the tide of invasion would pour. Such an attack would achieve three objects. It would, or might, satisfy the demands of the Russians which were being pressed with great vigour, it would give armies which had been training for two and a half years or more their longed-for opportunity to come to grips with the enemy, and it would almost certainly provoke the Luftwaffe into intense activity. On the other hand, for the Allies to mount an assault of such a nature with the naval and military forces which were then available, or which might become so during the ensuing twelve months, was soon seen to be hazardous in the extreme. The grave shortage of landing craft alone must limit the size and strength of the operations.
These were some of the reasons why, despite the pressure of the Russian Government, which was calling for an attack in the West large enough to draw off forty German divisions from the Eastern Front, the invasion of France was judged to be impracticable. There remained that stab in the soft underbelly of the Axis which had always been advocated by the British General Staff, and to which the Americans had never been averse. Once Tunisia was cleared of Axis forces, a large number of Allied troops would be immediately available to deliver it. The question was, where? Sicily was poised, a tempting stepping-stone between Africa and Italy. On the other hand, precisely because it was so tempting the enemy might well expect an attack upon it and take measures so to increase its defences as to make an amphibious onslaught costly. The alternative was Sardinia. That island was far more lightly defended; but it was farther away and it would be more difficult to provide an assaulting force with
cover from the air. Moreover, its air bases, once captured, were few and far between. The whole matter was summed up by Portal, who pointed out that while to assault northern France might induce the Germans to bring up air forces from the Mediterranean, they would realize that Britain and America were not strong enough to attack simultaneously both in the north and in the south. On the other hand to threaten Italy would cause a dispersal of the Luftwaffe and thus achieve that wastage of its strength which was indispensable to the maintenance of a sustained bomber offensive, itself the preliminary to a successful invasion of Europe. Moreover, such a policy, if successful, would provide air bases from which it would be possible to bomb Austria, where no small part of the German aircraft industry, notably the Messerschmitt factories at Wiener Neustadt, was situated, and Rumania, where was to be found the main source of her supplies of natural oil.
These arguments, reinforced as they were by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the First Sea Lord, prevailed. To attack Sicily might be a more costly affair than an assault upon Sardinia, but it would yield greater and more immediate results, of which not the least would be the freeing of the Mediterranean for the passage of ships.
Before any invasion could be mounted the enemy must be mastered in two vital elements, the air and the sea. It was here that the views of the Chief of the Air Staff carried special weight. The Luftwaffe must be rendered powerless and the best way to achieve this end was to compel the Germans to spread it over as wide an area as could be found. Such a dispersal would not allow it to be strong enough at any given point to offer effective resistance. The position of the German Air Force, said Portal, was critical. The stamina of the crews was not what it was, their training had fallen off, and they were showing less determination than in previous years. Undoubtedly the main cause of this was a shortage of aircraft. There was no depth behind the German front line in the air. Portal’s suspicions of the actual strength of the Luftwaffe at that time were correct. In fact it possessed no more than 4,207 first-line aircraft of all kinds, of which 2,521 were serviceable. In reserve there were 1,417, of which 735 were ready for action. This was not a large number for a nation marking time in the West while fighting a life and death campaign in the East. General Marshall was strongly of opinion that to compel the Germans to engage in air combat with the air forces of the Allies was the easiest and most effective method of reducing the strength of the Luftwaffe. To do so it would be necessary to lure that force by means of operations involving sea and land forces to
some place where it would encounter the British and American fighter squadrons and suffer the consequences.
One further requisite for success was needed. The U-boats of Admiral Dönitz must be vanquished and the seas freed from their menace. For Allies separated from each other by thousands of miles of ocean, and compelled by the unalterable logic of geography to fight on exterior lines, the safety of seaborne communications was vital. U-boats must therefore be combated by every means, and wherever they were to be found—in the building yards, at their operating bases, on passage to their hunting grounds and in those grounds themselves. By 1943 attacks of this kind had long lost all elements of novelty. From the very beginning of the war they had been pressed but had never achieved a decision.
For dealing with German submarines two things were necessary—an increase in the activities of Coastal Command, and the intensified bombing of U-boat operational bases and the ports where they were being built or their prefabricated parts assembled. On these two points agreement in the Conference was general and immediate. Pride of place in the directive to the Allied bomber forces, drawn up by the Combined Chiefs of Stall” on 21st January, 1943, and immediately approved by the Prime Minister and the President, was therefore given to attacks on ‘German submarine construction yards’. This directive, one of the most important of the war, needs careful examination, since within its short compass an attempt was made to outline a programme for what amounted to the annihilation of the enemy and all his works and pomps. It was addressed to the appropriate British and United States Air Force Commanders and by them transmitted almost unaltered to those who were to carry it out. ‘Your primary object’, ran the instructions sent to Air Marshal Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, ‘will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’. That, as it were, was the general premise, and having stated it, the Chiefs of Staff then went into details. First in order of attack were the all-important German submarine construction yards. Next came German aircraft industry; the third in the chosen list was German means of transportation; the fourth, oil plants, synthetic or natural; the fifth and last, targets somewhat vaguely defined as situated ‘in enemy war industry’. To amplify their instructions the Chiefs of Staff went on to give examples of objectives ‘of great importance either from the political or military point of view’. Among these, as might have been expected, were first
and foremost ‘submarine operating bases on the Biscay coast’. ‘If these’, they averred, ‘can be put out of action, a great step forward will have been taken in the U-boat war. ... Day and night attacks on these bases have been inaugurated and should be continued, so that an assessment of their effects can be made as soon as possible. If it is found that successful results can be achieved, these attacks should continue whenever conditions are favourable for as long and as often as is necessary’. The second example was of greater political than operational significance. ‘Berlin’, ran the directive, ‘... should be attacked when conditions are suitable for the attainment of specially valuable results, unfavourable to the morale of the enemy or favourable to that of Russia’. Such were the instructions delivered to Air Marshal Harris and General Eaker. They deserve, and must be accorded, closer examination.
The directive was not a directive in fact at all but something even more important, a general statement of policy set down by the high personages responsible in the last resort for the conduct of the war. In drafting it they were dealing with a situation which was the opposite of stable. By invading North Africa a great effort had been made to increase the scale of the war on land. It was soon to be successful, and its success, though it did not become a fact until May, was, for all intents and purposes, assured in January when the directive was drafted. Moreover, the Germans had of late been hard hit. They had failed to take Stalingrad, the Russians were within fifty miles of Rostov, and most serious of all, the vital oil of the Caucasus was still uncaptured. Against this had to be set an increase in the U-boat campaign and the continued existence of a complex and highly organized industrial machine in Germany itself which, up till then, had been able to work almost unscathed and was capable of much greater efforts.
Faced with this state of affairs, it was not unnatural for those who had the ordering of the fight so to word their commands that not only could advantage be taken of a sudden development, but also that a balance might be struck between those who feared that, unless repeatedly and heavily attacked, the U-boats would gain the upper hand, and those who were convinced that blows, equally heavy or heavier, delivered against the cities and industries of the enemy, would prove decisive. Nevertheless, the mere issue of the directive led to momentous results. Henceforward the ever-increasing bomber strength of Britain and America would be used in combination and each force would play its designed part in the fulfilment of a common purpose. The Americans would carry out precision attacks by day, the British, area attacks by night, but the object of both was the utter
destruction of German industrial power. How Bomber Command went forth to battle beneath the ‘pitchy mantle’ of night must now be told.
At the time the directive was issued, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had been at the head of Bomber Command for not quite a year. He was an airman of very special qualifications and was well fitted to occupy the position, alike by training and temperament. Behind him lay more than a quarter of a century of experience, much of it gained in operating heavy bombers at night in conditions of both peace and war. The long years passed in his country’s service had formed his will and matured his judgment. He knew his own mind, and though he did not always chose the best moment to do so, he could express it with force and freedom. An expert in his own profession he was impatient not of criticism but of any lack of a considered policy. His was the responsibility, and, as long as he was in command, he would take it and with it the consequences, whatever they might be. If a firm and consistent line was not, or could not be, taken in Whitehall, that was an annoying but not an insurmountable obstacle. Me would persevere but in the last resort he would not forget that he, too, was a man subject to authority. Once it was clear to him that an order had been issued he would obey it without question and he did so. All his life through he had lived under discipline and knew what it could accomplish and what it could not. His very ruthlessness, offspring of Harris’s fierce honesty of purpose and singleness of mind, drove him to demand the utmost of his crews, not once but again and yet again, while at the same time with equal vehemence he strove to move mountains on their behalf. When there was an opportunity to strike the enemy hard, he seized it; but every proposal to make use of them for purposes for which he considered them to be untrained, or which were in his view not such as to produce a result worth the risk, he vigorously opposed.
To this formidable man the grim opening words of the Casablanca Directive had the voice of a trumpet. ‘At long last’, he records, ‘we were ready and equipped’1. He believed that in his Command he possessed not a mere weapon of war but the vital weapon, the weapon by which alone it could be won, and he intended to use it with all the skill and resolution of his stern nature and fierce heart.
By the end of April, 1943, Bomber Command had at its disposal thirty-six operational and two non-operational heavy squadrons and ten operational and four non-operational Wellington squadrons, a total of 851 heavy aircraft and 237 medium. These included the
contribution of the Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 6 Group, formed on 1st January, 1943. Pilots from the Dominions had been serving with the Command from the outset of the war, and by the beginning of that year amounted to more than one-third of the total number. Of these over half had been furnished by Canada. Harris was ready to commit them all to the attack, and he had already chosen the battlefield. It was to be the Ruhr.
Harris was all the more eager to assault this vital region of Germany because he had recently had little opportunity of doing so. A directive, which he had received in the middle of January, a week before that agreed upon at the Casablanca Conference, had chosen a very different type of target. Harris had obeyed. ‘It was’, he records, ‘one of the most infuriating episodes in the whole course of the offensive’, and he did not scruple to describe this decision as a misdirection of his force. His opinion was based on the conviction that no damage could be caused to the U-boat pens, for by then they had been completed and were covered with many feet of concrete impenetrable by any bomb then possessed by his force. All that it could achieve would be the devastation of the towns themselves, the destruction of workshops not under cover of the pens and of the hostels and other places of refreshment used by the U-boat crews on their return from a voyage. Bomber Command, Harris protested, should be used for a greater purpose. Such modest achievements as these were unworthy of its energies. But were they?
As far back as 12th October, 1942, the First Sea Lord had pointed out to the Chiefs of Staff that attacks on the bases in the Bay of Biscay were of great importance and had urged that the United States Eighth Army Air Force should be despatched against them. A month later, the First Lord renewed his naval colleagues’ request. At this point the Prime Minister intervened. To attack the ports would, he said, undoubtedly cause casualties among their inhabitants, and those inhabitants were French. Public opinion in that unhappy country might well be stirred. This was also the view of the Chief of the Air Staff who maintained that the bombing of the submarine bases would have no effect except the destruction of old French towns. The First Sea Lord, whose main preoccupation was, quite rightly, the prosecution by any and every means of the campaign against the U-boats, remained unconvinced. The question was eventually submitted for decision to the War Cabinet. Three weeks passed and then, two days before Christmas, the War Cabinet made known its decision. Harris was to bomb Lorient, St. Nazaire, Brest and La Pallice in the order named and the directive instructed him to bring about ‘the effective devastation of the whole area in
which are located the submarines, their maintenance facilities, and the services, power, water, light, communications and other resources on which their operations depend’. The Admiralty had won its point. The U-boat pens might be impenetrable but the damage caused to the plant and installations situated outside their sheltering roofs might well hinder U-boat activities, even though it could not put an end to them. Casualties among French civilian workers would doubtless be caused and this would be very regrettable, but political considerations had to yield to the harsh demands of war.
As has been said, Harris received his orders on the morning of 14th January 1943. That same night, true to his training and philosophy, he put them into execution. Between that day and mid-February some 2,000 aircraft were despatched against Lorient. On the last night of February about 400 attacked St. Nazaire and the attack was repeated twice in the course of the ensuing month. The United States Eighth Army Air Force sustained the attack by day.
Six weeks later Grand Admiral Dönitz informed the Central Planning Office of the Reich that ‘The towns of St. Nazaire and Lorient have been rubbed out as main submarine bases. No dog nor cat is left ... nothing but the submarine shelters remain’. These, built by the Todt organization through ‘the far sighted vision of the Führer’ had suffered no damage. Harris’s prophecy had proved true. Yet the rate at which U-boats could be repaired had certainly been diminished. A number of slipways had suffered severely; the water mains and electric current were unreliable and by the end of January the German commander on the spot reported that the capacity of the dockyard at Lorient was temporarily reduced by half. Such results, though not decisive, were not wholly negligible. Moreover, fearful for their U-boat bases, the German High Command hastily despatched reinforcements of anti-aircraft guns, and before long Lorient, St. Nazaire, Brest and La Pall ice had each received four additional eight-gun batteries of heavy flak. The German U-boats continued to use these ports and, although Bomber Command had not entirely failed, the last word lay with Marschall, the German Admiral Commanding in the West, who reported that ‘the British have not succeeded in their efforts to eliminate the bases’.
The pens had taken the Todt organization somewhat more than a year to construct. During most of that time they had been very vulnerable, for the heavy concrete roofs were not in position. Yet the pens were not attacked, and the Admiralty does not appear to have made any strong representation that they should be, but to have contented itself with pressing for the bombing, not of the bases where the pens were situated, but of the yards where new U-boats
were under construction. The change of policy, when it occurred, came too late. Yet the Admiralty still continued to demand more attacks and seems at that time to have been influenced by an analysis of the German attacks on a number of English towns in 1940. These, so the experts averred, had they been prolonged, would have made it impossible for the factories of the towns to remain in production, for they would have been without gas or electricity. True, such services, though easily damaged, were easily repaired; but a prolonged assault must in the end not only put, but keep, them out of action. The same, mutatis mutandis, would be true in the Biscayan ports. Such reasoning made no appeal to Harris when it was applied to sea ports in France for they were not the centres of German industry; and when, on 4th February, he received the Casablanca Directive he felt that he had all the excuse he needed. Bomber Command would now be used not as a defensive weapon, part of the armoury employed to keep open the sea lanes, but in an offensive role against the vitals of the enemy. By the beginning of March, after two preliminary and fairly heavy attacks on Cologne, he felt himself free at last to begin anew the Battle of the Ruhr.
The target chosen was the most important within range from Great Britain. The industrial area of the Ruhr is, or was, the largest centre of heavy industry and coal-mining in Europe. Not only did it provide finished products of all kinds but also the raw material in the form of coal and steel which other industries in Germany needed for the production of war material. Its boundary on the north runs from Wesel to Hamm and is defined on the south by the valley of the Ruhr. On the west the Rhine is the main boundary, but along both its banks stretches a ribbon of industry and transport systems. The great river port of Duisburg–Hamborn at the junction of the Rhine and Heme canals is the western gateway. The heart of this comparatively small and highly compact region is composed of a coalfield lying at the foot of the lower Rhine hills and enclosed between the Lippe and Ruhr rivers.
The history of the Ruhr as an industrial concern began in 1838 and developed rapidly after 1846, when Friedrich Krupp, the founder of the most notorious firm of armament manufacturers the world has ever known, cast his first gun in a small forge in Essen. From that year onwards the Ruhr became Europe’s principal producing area of coal, coke, iron and steel. The main area occupied by the metallurgical industries and coke ovens lies in the Bochum and Essen basins, and their presence in that region led to the wide development of other industries. Coal tar and gases from the coke ovens have for fifty years provided raw materials for the chemical industries, and the
abundance of coal has led to the smelting and working of metals. But the main industry was, and always has been, the production of iron and steel. The huge works created for this object dominated Duisburg and Oberhausen, Mülheim and Essen, and it was in these towns, too, that the heavy engineering industries were concentrated. Of Germany’s needs of coal for coke the Ruhr produced nearly three-quarters and more than sixty per cent of the total production of pig-iron and steel. Two-thirds of all high-grade alloyed steels, indispensable for the forging of a large number of weapons and the building of aircraft engines, came from the Ruhr, and Ruhr coal produced the oil manufactured in ten synthetic oil plants.
This huge concentration of industry in a comparatively small area provided its own means of defence, a screen composed of a natural haze increased by the belching smoke from hundreds of chimneys. It spread a dark pall over all the countryside and, even on a bright moonlight night, its presence made it almost impossible for the crew of a bomber to distinguish landmarks with certainty. To this half natural, half artificial defence, anti-aircraft guns and night fighters were added in abundance.
Such was the formidable target which in March 1943 Harris set out to destroy. Of all parts of it the most important and the most difficult to find was Essen, the business and commercial centre of the coal and iron industries of the Ruhr-Westphalia region. Here was situated the headquarters of the vast Krupps concern, the mining section of the United Steelworks of the Rheinische Coal Syndicate, the Rheinische Steelworks, and the headquarters of many other great firms. The Krupps undertaking produced not only iron, steel, coal and coke, but armaments of every kind, locomotives, tractors and mining machinery.
Here then was the target, its heart was Essen, and at the heart Harris determined to strike. He did so on 5th/6th March and for the first time made use of OBOE on a large scale. The assault was planned with that attention to detail which, always a characteristic of the Command, was to develop as the war went on until it attained a very high degree of complexity and precision. The plan was for the bombs to be dropped from 2100 hours onwards. Eight Mosquitos fitted with OBOE were to lead the attack and they were to be followed closely by twenty-two Pathfinders to act as ‘backers-up’. The duty of the Mosquito group was to put down yellow target indicator flares along the line of approach and fifteen miles short of the target. The ‘backers-up’ were to maintain these pointers to the target by dropping more flares. Having released the yellow target indicators, the Mosquitos were to mark the aiming
point—which on this night, as on others, was the centre of the vast Krupps works—with salvoes of red target indicators dropped in accordance with a closely calculated schedule. The first was to fall at Zero hour, the next three minutes later, the next ten minutes later, and so on until the last fell thirty-three minutes after the first. The ‘backers-up’ were to attack at intervals of from one to two minutes during this period, beginning two minutes after Zero hour and continuing for thirty-six minutes. They were to drop green target indicators and high explosive bombs in salvoes, aiming them at the red target indicators with a delay of one second before releasing the incendiaries.
Following the Mosquitos and ‘backers-up’ of the Pathfinder Force, the main force, led in its turn by Pathfinders and composed of 417 aircraft, was to attack in three sections. The first, composed of Halifaxes, would complete its attack in eighteen minutes and would finish twenty minutes after Zero hour. Section No. 2, made up of Wellingtons and Stirlings, was to begin the attack a quarter of an hour after Zero and maintain it for ten minutes. Section No. 3, the Lancaster force, was to come in twenty minutes after the first bomb had been dropped, and complete its task, like the Wellingtons and Stirlings, in ten minutes. Each crew of the main force was warned that the method of placing the red target indicators was new and regarded as very accurate. They were, therefore, to use their utmost endeavours to drop their bombs with precision upon them. If the red indicators could not be seen, then they were to bomb the green. Before the attack had been in progress for fifteen minutes no aircraft belonging to the main force was to bomb anything but the target indicators. The bomb loads were to be one-third high explosive and two-thirds incendiaries and of the high explosive bombs one-third again were to be fused for long delay with anti-disturbance mechanism.
Such was the plan. As will be seen it was complicated and depended for success on accurate timing. This was very largely secured, the first Pathfinder dropping its flares at two minutes to nine p.m., the last at thirty-eight minutes past. Of the main force, four aircraft of Section No. 1, the Halifaxes, attacked two minutes early and one a minute late; the remaining seventy attacked within the required period. Of the Wellingtons and Stirlings in Section No. 2 thirty-five attacked early, six late and one hundred on time. Of Section No. 3, the Lancasters, forty-three were ten minutes too soon and eighty-six timed their attack correctly.
As soon as the first red target indicator markers had been dropped, they were bombed by a number of aircraft belonging to the main
force, and sticks of incendiaries were seen burning round them. The green target indicators which followed a few minutes later fell very accurately close to the red. The attack had been in progress no more than seven minutes when fires obtained a firm grip of the target, and this indication of success was soon confirmed by ‘a tremendous explosion’, after which ‘fires increased in intensity and by the end. the whole target area seemed covered with fire and smoke’. One observer reported that it was surrounded by an almost complete circle of flames, ‘miles in diameter’.
The new method had brought about the necessary concentration, and at last the bombs were falling upon what it had been intended they should hit. All the later red target indicators were seen to enter the centre of the fire, except one cluster which, at half past nine, fell to the south-west, an error due to a technical defect in the OBOE mechanism carried by one of the Pathfinder aircraft. Towards the end of the raid two more large explosions were observed and, by the time the last attacker turned on its way home, the Krupps undertaking was filled with fires and craters.
That night an area somewhat larger than 160 acres was laid waste, by far the greater part of it by fire. In the main group of Krupps buildings, fifty-three separate shops were damaged and thirteen destroyed or put virtually out of action. Three coalmines, a sawmill, an iron foundry and a screw works also suffered severely. The plants of the Goldschmidt Company, smelters and makers of sulphuric acid, and of the Machinenbau Union were partly gutted. The power station, gasworks and the municipal tram depot suffered a like fate, as did the goods yard of the Segerth suburban station. Seven hundred houses, blocks of flats, offices and small business premises in or near the centre of the town were utterly destroyed and 2,000 more rendered uninhabitable. A number of hutted camps housing the slave workers of Germany were almost entirely wiped out. The public buildings which suffered very extensive damage, mostly from fire, included the Town Hall, the Exchange, the town baths, four buildings of the Post Office, an enclosed market, nine churches, five schools and a theatre.
Of all this damage, the most satisfactory was that which occurred in the shops devoted to the stamping of sheet metal, to annealing, and to the production of gun parts, pneumatic tools, excavators and gun turrets. Interference with the public services—gas, water and electricity—was less severe, but the main gasometer of the city was never used again and most householders or fiat dwellers were without gas for from three to twenty-five days. The principal factories, however, received their full supply of electricity within a very short time.
Such were the main results of a raid carried out by 442 aircraft, of which 367 reached the target. Of those which did not, forty-eight failed to take off owing to some technical defect. The losses from enemy action were light, no more than fourteen. Of these four were shot down by flak, five fell to fighters and five disappeared and were entered in the column ‘missing, causes unknown’. ‘J for Jig’ of No. 196 Squadron and ‘L for Love’ of No. 466 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, collided over the North Sea on the way to Essen. Both aircraft were damaged but one held on and reached the target and both returned safely to base. ‘Z for Zebra’ of No. 429 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, crashed on take-off.
This raid on Essen on the night of 5th/6th March has been described in some detail because it marked a new stage in the development of Bomber Command, an important step forward which brought it nearer to its constant aim—greater precision of bombing. There ensued a pause of a week, then Bomber Command struck a second time at the same spot: 384 bombers attacked Essen for a loss of twenty-three of their number. The assault was repeated on a smaller scale on the night of 3rd/4th April by 348 aircraft, of which twenty-one were lost. When the last fire had been extinguished, 600 acres of the city had been devastated. The destruction in Krupps had been increased, and perhaps as many as half of the 300-odd buildings of the great works had been put, some temporarily, others permanently, out of action. A fourth raid, on the night of 30th April/1st May, inflicted what the Germans reported to be ‘total’ damage on gas, water and electricity in the Krupps works and very heavy damage on the steel foundry.
The effect on the enemy of these attacks on Essen was very great. ‘We arrived in Essen before seven a.m.’ runs an entry in Göbbels’ diary for the 10th April. ‘... We went to the hotel on foot because driving is quite impossible in many parts of Essen. This walk enabled us to make a first-hand estimate of the damage inflicted by the last three air raids. It is colossal and, indeed, ghastly. ... The city’s building experts estimate that it will take twelve years to repair the damage’. It will be perceived that Göbbels did not spare his words. In a passage too long to quote, taking Field-Marshal Milch as his authority, he inveighs against the negligence of Göring and General Udet, whose sins of omission had been committed ‘on a scale deserving to be commemorated by history’. There was little doubt in the mind of Göbbels, even at this comparatively early stage of our bomber offensive, that the situation was serious and that it would remain so for some time. He did not regard Milch, to whose technical opinions he deferred, as a pessimist; but he could not but
note that one of the creators of the Luftwaffe saw the situation in a sombre light, and he was prepared to admit that, long before it became possible to retaliate effectively ‘the English could lay a large part of the Reich in ruins, if they go about it the right way’. Such testimony, confided to the secrecy of a private diary, only a few days after the events upon which it comments took place, is of great significance. The Royal Air Force, despite the opposition of the Luftwaffe, had delivered a grievous blow upon the most sensitive part of Germany, and the prophecy made two years before that Bomber Command would ‘deliver that overwhelming onslaught which will bring the enemy to his knees and then lay him prostrate in the dust of his own ruined cities’ was on the way to fulfilment. Sharply criticized at the time, especially by those who still pinned their faith in the omnipotence of sea power, this forecast of the fate of Germany’s cities, far from being mere bombast, was a year later seen to be no more than a statement of fact. The tumbling masonry, the roaring fires, the thin screams of the victims in the tortured town of Essen were phenomena soon to be repeated in an even more dreadful form throughout the length and breadth of Germany.
However much this consummation was devoutly wished at the Headquarters of Bomber Command, its achievement was to be a painful process. The first assault on Essen in the opening days of March had been very severe, but it will have been noticed that in number of aircraft despatched and in weight of tons dropped, the attacks had a tendency to grow lighter while our casualties tended to increase. The enemy, struck in a vital spot, was doing his utmost to protect himself. From that time onwards he steadily reinforced his anti-aircraft defence until Luftgau VI, though the smallest of the eight Luftgaue into which the Third Reich was divided, contained no less than forty per cent of the total number of heavy anti-aircraft batteries available. By the summer of 1943 he had increased his night-fighter force from 386 aircraft, at the end of January 1943, to 466. The manner in which they were handled shows the difficulties confronting the defence. It was in the hands of General Josef Kammhuber, who had first concerned himself with the problem at the end of 1940 when he had been given the command of a night-fighter division. He was an insignificant looking little man of about forty and very abstemious, for consumption of alcohol and tobacco in any quantity affected his health. In August 1941 his Division was extended into a Fliegerkorps and given the number twelve, and he himself was promoted Lieutenant-General. This Corps was in full operation when the Battle of the Ruhr began. It was comprehensive in character and by then included six night-fighter groups, three
searchlight regiments and an air reporting battalion, whose duties corresponded to those of the Royal Observer Corps. The total number of fighters was therefore in the neighbourhood of 460 They formed the pinnacle of a pyramid—that at least was the opinion of the unhappy General who commanded them—which at the base-consisted of ground organizations which, in his view were heavily overstaffed.
Night fighters, for the most part Ju.88s and Me.110s, were controlled from the ground and, when airborne, were sent to circle the radio beacons set up in a long chain stretching from Jutland southwards to Brest. The aircraft worked in pairs, fighter No. 1 being directed by the operators of the Würzburg detector, a radar device for picking up attacking aircraft, while fighter No. 2 continued to circle the medium frequency beacon at the reported height of the attacking bombers. When contact had been established by fighter No. 1, he was released from ground control, which switched to fighter No. 2. As soon as the attack, successful or not, had been delivered the night fighter returned to his beacon and continued to circle it. If, however, when so doing, the pilot caught sight of a hostile bomber, his orders were to attack it at once. Wireless silence was maintained except when the aircraft was answering specific questions put by the fighter control officer on the ground. Night lighters who approached the anti-aircraft ‘boxes’—areas in which the guns were concentrated so as to cover a fixed section of the sky—were required to fly above 18,000 feet to avoid interfering with their own flak. The main ‘boxes’ were situated in Holland and north-west Germany at Juist, Wangerooge, Cuxhaven and Heligoland. The success of these beacons, round which the night fighters flew, was limited by the range, which for some time was not more than twenty kilometres. This was gradually increased until double that distance could be covered.
The tactics of the German night-fighter pilots were simple and often effective. They carried out their search as directed from the ground, flying at a slightly lower height than the estimated height of the bomber. They were thus searching from below and their gaze was turned upwards in the hope of seeing the dark silhouette of the bomber against the night sky. On seeing their prey they flew ahead of it, climbed and then dropped back to a position above and astern. They then dived to attack, fired and broke away sharply. The range on a dark night was about 100 yards and sometimes as short as thirty-five. On a lighter night it increased to 200. Such tactics were countered by the pilots of Bomber Command by putting their aircraft into a corkscrew flight when the presence of night fighters was known
or suspected. This method of evasion would, it was hoped, make it difficult for the night fighter to keep his sights on the target. At the beginning of the corkscrew twist, if the bomber moved toward the night fighter coming in to attack, the mid-upper gunner obtained a good view of the fighter and had therefore an opportunity to open fire. The success of these tactics varied and, as will be seen from the evidence of German pilots quoted in Volume III (Chapter 1), was very far from assured.
Though in 1943 the German night fighter and flak defences of the Ruhr were not so highly developed as, with the introduction of a number of radar devices, they later came to be, they were nevertheless far from ineffective. The Battle of the Ruhr was fought with mounting casualties and in the teeth of an opposition steadily growing in strength and skill. Nevertheless it was pressed with the greatest vigour. Between the night 5th/6th March when it opened and 28th/29th June, twenty-six major attacks were delivered on targets in or near the Ruhr. To these must be added three attacks on Berlin, four on Wilhelmshaven, two each on Hamburg, Nuremberg and Stuttgart, and one each on Bremen, Kiel, Stettin, Munich, Frankfurt and Mannheim. All these were made before the end of April. In all, from the beginning of February 1943 until the end of June, Bomber Command was out in force on fifty-two nights—nine in February, thirteen in March, nine in April, eleven in May and ten in June.
In the Ruhr the next town after Essen to suffer assault on a considerable scale was Duisburg, site of a great part of German heavy industry, and a great inland port’ with its complex of industrial satellite towns, rolling mills, etc.’ It was attacked five times during the battle and received 5,157 tons of bombs, the two most severe attacks being on the nights of 26th/27th April and 12th/13th May.
Dusseldorf, ‘the leading commercial city of Western Germany’, was of special importance, for in it was housed the general administrative departments of almost all the important ‘iron and steel, heavy engineering and armament concerns of the Ruhr and Rhineland’. The first attack, carried out on the night of 25th/26th May, was not very successful. The second, delivered on 11th/12th June by 693 aircraft, took place in good weather and a strong concentration on the aiming point was achieved. So large were the fires kindled on that occasion that the air raid precautions services in the city were overwhelmed. Photographs showed very great damage, particularly in the engineering works and railways, and some buildings were still smouldering a week later.
Of other attacks during this battle, it is necessary to mention that
delivered upon Wuppertal-Barmen on the night of 29th/30th May. The Mosquitos directed by OBOE were not very successful but the thirty-four ‘backers-up’ and forty-four Lancasters which followed them were able to keep the target marked with ground flares and incendiaries. They performed their task with efficiency, and the main force, in great strength, dropped their bombs in precisely one hour. The results were some of the most remarkable achieved throughout the course of the battle. Nine-tenths of the built-up area attacked was devastated; about 2,450 of the inhabitants lost their lives and a somewhat larger number were seriously injured. At dawn 118,000 found themselves without homes and 34,000 housing units were made uninhabitable.
On this raid 534 bombers were equipped with the navigational aid GEE and most of them were able to use it on their outward and homeward journey, although the distance to the target was 360 miles. Sixty aircraft were damaged by flak, six by our own incendiaries when over the target, and thirty-three did not return. When recrossing the North Sea the bombers were subjected to seventy-six attacks, for the German night-fighter defence made great efforts that night and claimed twenty-two victims. They fell to the Geschwader operating mainly from the Gilze and Venlo districts of Holland, whose reputation for efficiency was enhanced. Thus, by the end of June, 34,705 tons of bombs had been dropped by Bomber Command on the Ruhr for the loss of 628 aircraft—totals which do not include minor operations.
Two more attacks, one of them outside the Ruhr, made during this period, must be mentioned. On 28th/29th June 540 bombers made a ‘blind’ attack on Cologne, flying there on GEE and bombing beacons and sky markers dropped by OBOE-directed Pathfinders. The industrial district east of the Rhine and the northern area, including the railways, were badly damaged. It was almost certainly in this raid that the main railway station suffered especially severely, though Cologne Cathedral, only a few hundred yards away, by some extraordinary chance received no major hurt. The other attack, by only nineteen aircraft, was of special importance alike because of the target chosen and of the skill shown by the crews. It had long been determined to add water as well as fire and high explosive to the list of plagues scourging the Ruhr. On the night of 16th/17th May this intention was fulfilled by Wing Commander Gibson, who set out with his Squadron to destroy the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams. The Möhne dam controlled the level of the river Ruhr, and the lake which its construction created had a surface of over ten square kilometres and a maximum depth of water of 105 feet. It contained over 130 million tons of water, which were used to supply pumping stations
and electric plants in the Ruhr, the quantity available being sufficiently great to enable the supply to be maintained even in periods of drought. To breach the dam meant the release of this water, which, gushing through the valley of the Ruhr would not only cause widespread, possibly disastrous, flooding, but would also affect electricity supplies in the most highly industrialized area possessed by the enemy. The wall of the dam was composed of limestone rubble masonry twenty-five feet thick at the top and 112 feet at the bottom. A series of arched openings pierced the crest to allow the water of the lake to flow out over an apron. At the foot of the dam was a 6,000 kilowatt power station. The Eder dam, of similar construction, had been built to control the River Weser and prevent flooding in the great areas of Westphalia. It was even stronger than the Möhne dam and controlled more water. The Sorpe dam was of different construction but also of great importance. To cause the greatest amount of damage it was necessary to attack the dams when the dry season was at hand and when, therefore, they would be full. The ideal date was found to be the night of 16th/17th May when the water in the Möhne dam would be only four feet from the top.
As soon as the decision had been made, special and urgent preparations to ensure the success of the operation were put in hand. A new squadron, No. 617, marking letters AJ, was formed, attached to No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, and based on Scampton. The command of it was given to Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson,2later to be killed in action on 19th September, 1944, over München-Gladbach, and he was allowed carte blanche, the only stipulation being that all should be ready by 10th May. Gibson, a man of the highest resolution and ability, formed the squadron on 20th March and training began five days later. By the stipulated date the twenty-one picked crews, chosen by himself, were each able to fly long distances at a height of 150 feet or less, and to bomb with a margin of error of not more than twenty-five feet from a height of only sixty feet. To reach this pitch of professional skill they had flown 2,000 hours and dropped some 2,500 practice bombs. The weapon they were to carry with them was of a special type designed by B. N. Wallis, a scientist in the employ of Vickers-Armstrong’s, who with Gibson had worked out the very special manner in which it would have to be dropped to make the necessary breach in the dams. Numerous experiments showed that the casing of these mines broke to pieces if they were dropped from a height even as low as 150 feet.
Wallis and Gibson were almost in despair when, only a fortnight before the operation, they found that, dropped from 60 feet, the mines remained intact. To fly a four-engined heavy bomber of a total weight of some 63,000 pounds, which included a bulky weapon, at a height so low as this over calm water and in the uncertain light of the moon, required skill of the very highest order. To make certain that that height would be maintained at the moment of the mine’s release, two small searchlights were fixed, at the suggestion of Mr. Lockspeiser of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, to the wing tips of each Lancaster. They were set at an angle and, when switched on, their beams intersected at a point exactly sixty feet below the aircraft. To maintain that height it was necessary for the pilot to fly so that the point of intersection rested on the surface of the water. This device was known as the spotlight altimeter calibrator.
By 15th May all was ready. The crews were practised, the route chosen, the models of the dams studied, the mines (still warm from the filling factory, which had placed a special explosive within their skins) were fused and in position, the weather forecast was favourable. As dusk fell, one by one the great aircraft climbed slowly into the air, for they were heavy-laden. ‘After they had gone, Lincoln was silent once more; the evening mist began to settle on the aerodrome’.
The attack, carried out by nineteen aircraft, was made in three waves. The leading wave, led by Gibson, attacked first the Möhne dam, then the Eder. The objective of the second wave was the Sorpe dam and the third wave acted as a flying reserve. All aircraft were fitted with very high frequency radio telephone so that each could speak with the other. Flying very low on courses carefully chosen to avoid flak positions, especially those in the Western Wall, the first two waves crossed the coast of Holland simultaneously. Eight of the first wave reached the dam, one being shot down on the way. Gibson at the controls of his Lancaster led the attack. ‘As we came over the hill’, he records, ‘we saw the Möhne lake. Then we saw the dam itself. In that light it looked squat and heavy and uncomfortable’. After circling for some time to make sure that he would take the best line of approach Gibson dived down to sixty feet under a brisk fire from two flak towers, and approached the dam at 240 miles an hour. The spotlight altimeter calibrator, thrusting down its beams, provided a mark for the very active German gunners, but they were soon vigorously engaged by Gibson’s rear gunner, Flight Lieutenant Trevor Roper, who that night fired 12,000 rounds. At precisely the right moment Pilot Officer Spafford released the mine and a few seconds later ‘a great thousand feet column of whiteness’ rose from the lake. Its surface became instantly disturbed and this delayed the
subsequent attacks, for the mines could only be dropped in calm water. The Lancaster flown by Flight Lieutenant Hopgood, who made the second attack, was hit, crashed, and his mine fell on the power house beyond the dam, destroying all the telephone communications. Three other aircraft dropped their mines successfully, while the gunners in Gibson’s Lancaster, flying up and down the dam, sprayed the defences with fire and presently mastered them. By now the air was full of spray created by the explosions and a mist had settled upon the wind-screens of the attacking aircraft. Peering through the mist, it seemed to Gibson’s straining eyes that the dam still stood unshaken. Then, as he turned to fly yet once more along it, he heard someone shout, ‘I think she has gone, I think she has gone’. He looked down, and saw the water of the lake, ‘like stirred porridge in the moonlight, rushing through a great breach’. In a few minutes ‘the valley was beginning to fill with fog and ... we saw cars speeding along the roads in front of this great wave of water which was chasing them ...I saw their headlights burning and I saw the water overtake them, wave by wave, and then the colour of the headlights underneath the water changing from light blue to green, from green to dark purple until there was no longer anything except the water bouncing down’.
Back in the Operations Room at Grantham the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, the Group Commander, and Wallis, awaited the signal for success. At last it came. The listening operator reported picking up the word ‘Nigger’,3 the agreed code word, whereupon Harris and Wallis leapt to their feet in unrestrained relief.
His task accomplished at Möhne, Gibson, at the head of the three aircraft still with their mines on board, went on to the Eder dam. The mines were laid one by one, one of them detonating on the parapet of the dam and destroying the aircraft which had dropped it. Two breaches appeared ‘causing a wall of water about thirty feet high to sweep down the valley’. The attack on the Sorpe dam was less successful, but considerable damage was caused. The attacks on the secondary targets, the Lister and Schwelme dams, failed.
On his return Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross. For the loss of eight aircraft and fifty-four highly trained and gallant men, a heavy blow had been dealt the enemy. On that night the warden of the dam, Oberförster Wilkening, finding the main telephone lines out of action, ran wildly to the nearest railway station on the Ruhr-Lippe line and rang up headquarters at Soest. He reported that an immense flood wave twenty-five feet high, moving at a speed of six
yards a second, was pouring through the dam down the Möhne and Ruhr valleys. The Regierungspräsident at Arnsberg, in control of Westphalia, was powerless, and spent some time issuing orders which, since they reached no one, could not be obeyed. All lights were extinguished, operators in the candlelit telephone exchange sought to send out flood warnings, but already the water had submerged the lines. The police at Neheim, however, received the message; but since most of the inhabitants were in the air raid shelters, for the sirens had sounded on the approach of Gibson and his men, it proved impossible to tell the people in time. This accounts for the high death roll of 499 Germans, 718 foreign workers and 1,012 head of livestock. The floods spread to the bottom of the Ruhr valley, and overran the district round Schwerte and Hattingen. The Eder valley was in the same case, for both the Möhne and the Eder lakes were emptied. At Bringhausen the storage power station was inundated and Alfoldern was under water as was the Wabern and Felsberg district, sixteen miles from the dam. Part of the town of Kassel remained submerged for several days. Many hydro-electric installations, including a large power house on the Möhne itself, were destroyed or heavily damaged. Waterworks and purification plants all along the Ruhr were put out of action for some time, the main line between Hagen and Kassel was washed away and half the station at Fröndenberg completely wrecked. Of the ferro-concrete bridge at Neheim not even the piles remained, and the iron bridge at the same place was washed a hundred yards downstream. Damage to industrial undertakings was extensive, that caused by mud being difficult to repair quickly. Seventy per cent of the harvest and all the root crop was destroyed over a wide area. Seventy-nine houses vanished completely and more than 400 others were damaged more or less severely. It is not surprising that Göbbels had to record in his diary that ‘the attacks of British bombers on the dams ... were very successful. ... Damage to production was more than normal ... the Gauleiters in all Gaus containing dams which have not yet been attacked are very much worried. ...’
The worst damage of all, and that which Bomber Command had been most anxious to inflict, was caused to the water supply system. The water behind the Möhne dam served the needs of about four and a half million people. Its escape halved the amount available for them, a most serious matter in so highly industrialized an area. Of this the Germans were well aware, and very strenuous efforts were made to repair the dam as quickly as possible. Nineteen thousand cubic metres of concrete washed away or displaced by the bursting of the waters were replaced by the end of September, but the dam
was not fully repaired until August 1944. By then its defences had been immensely strengthened to guard against further attacks by similar weapons. ‘The next time the dam is attacked’, reported Hauptmann Freisewinkel, the Officer Commanding its defences, ‘I shall be rewarded either with the Ritterkreuz or the guillotine’. He had successfully slammed the door of the stable long after the horses, in this case the sea—or rather the lake—horses, had bolted.
Nevertheless, consideration of the evidence available after the war must lead to the conclusion that the damage caused, though great, was not decisive; industry in the Ruhr received a heavy, but by no means a mortal blow. To have dealt this it would have been necessary to breach every dam in the district, especially that at Sorpe. Working literally like beavers, the Germans carried out repairs in a space of time short enough to avoid a disaster.
The damage caused by Gibson and his gallant crews, added to that inflicted upon Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg and the other centres of production in the Ruhr, was by July, 1943, deemed sufficient to warrant a change of target. Moreover, towards the end of the Battle of the Ruhr, the casualties sustained were beginning to rise in a disquieting manner. On 10th June, the Air Ministry noted that the ‘increasing scale of destruction being inflicted by our night bomber force and the development of the day bomber offensive had forced the enemy to deploy day and night fighters in increasing numbers on the Western Front’. This was indeed so. Their number had steadily increased and together with the augmented ground defences they were taking such toll that both the United States Eighth Air Force and Bomber Command were in grave jeopardy. Their offensive was, in fact, in the balance. Faced with this situation the Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that in the first instance German fighter forces and the industry upon which they depended should be eliminated. For this purpose they presently issued what was soon known as the POINTBLANK Plan. Bomber Command prepared to redouble its efforts and now a new weapon came into play. At long last Harris was allowed to make use of WINDOW, the code name for strips of metallized paper of various lengths and sizes, which, dropped in showers of silver rain, prevented radar instruments from tracing the course of the attackers. With this device Bomber Command set out upon the next phase of the campaign. This time its objective was the huge seaboard town and port of Hamburg.
Before what befell that city is described, how the air forces fared far away in the south over the barren hills and fertile groves of Sicily must now be set down.